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Play ball Ada’s Post 72 Braves are hoping to knock the cover off the ball and keep the opposition from doing the same at this week’s American Legion State Tournament in Bartlesville. The 2009 state runner-up, Ada (24-16) will open against the Oklahoma City Ruf-Neks at 5 p.m. today with former Byng ace Blake Wheat on the mound.

Photo by Richard R. Barron
Ada Evening News

If Ada Post 72 coach Travis Graham learned anything in his first two trips to the American Legion State Tournament, it was that a team’s hopes for a championship are irrevocably tied to the depth of its pitching staff.

In 2008, the Braves were a solid offensive team, but their glaring weakness — a lack of depth at the top of the rotation — was put front and center when, after an impressive victory by Jon Gray in their state tournament opener, they lost two straight to make an early exit.

Last year, Graham made a conscious effort to add quality arms, and Ada’s pitching was one of the team’s strengths all summer. As a result, the Braves advanced all the way to the state tournament’s final game, where circumstances — and, ironically, a lack of pitching — ended their title run.

Chad Woods, one of the staff leaders on Graham’s first two Post 72 squads, pitched the Braves into the “if-necessary” championship game with a 3-2 win over the Oklahoma Outlaws and wasn’t available for the finale, and neither was his former Tupelo teammate, Randy McCurry, who had turned in a gallant effort to get the save for Woods while making his third appearance of the week. With Jon Ervin — one of the staff’s late-season surprises — having left on vacation a day earlier and Gray ineffective while starting on short rest, the Ada pitching staff had nothing to neutralize the Outlaw bats, and Graham and his club fell a game short.

As the 2010 season began, Graham had to rebuild a pitching staff that lost Ervin, McCurry and Woods, along with former Ada High aces Dillon Phillips and Tyler Carter, off last year’s roster. Gray, Tyler Porter and David Cagle were back, but Porter was coming off an elbow injury and wasn’t available until late June, and Gray was brought along slowly and entered July having pitched just seven innings all summer.

Blake Logan, a four-year standout at Roff High School, and Blake Wheat — 11-1 for Byng this spring — joined Coalgate ace Rhett Acker as the top new arms on the staff, but a tough schedule that had the Braves play 31 games in the first month of the season stretched their pitching thin. To make things tougher, Logan and Gray missed the final nine games in June while competing at the Senior Sunbelt in Norman, and Graham’s club entered July treading water at 16-15.

Over the past 10 games, though, the 2010 Braves have started to look a lot like the 2009 Braves on several fronts. With Logan and Gray back, the rotation has been solid, and the Ada offense has been able to mount the same kind of late-inning rallies that were a trademark of last year’s squad.

No Legion team in Oklahoma has a better 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation than Gray and Logan, a pair of power arms with impressive high school resumés. With Wheat, Cagle and Porter added to the mix, Graham has repeatedly said he has the state’s best five-man rotation, but while his heavy artillery will get a chance to make an early impression — Gray on Thursday and Logan Friday — at the state tournament, the effectiveness of the Braves’ “small-arms” fire could be the key to their success this week.

With Graham saving Gray for what he hopes will be a winner’s bracket face-off with Three Rivers at 8 p.m. Thursday and Logan for an anticipated winner’s bracket championship game showdown with the top-seeded Outlaws on Friday, the rest of his staff will be forced to do most of the heavy lifting this weekend.

Even if the Braves are lucky enough to stay in the winner’s bracket through Saturday (something they couldn’t do after a 5-4 loss to the Outlaws in their third state tournament game last season) and avoid the extra games that come with being a loser’s bracket team, Gray and Logan figure to be limited in the number of innings — if any — they can throw Saturday and Sunday (if necessary).

Wheat, 7-2 this summer and the team’s undisputed No. 3 starter, has shown an ability to bounce back in a hurry and should get a second start if the Braves hang around, but Graham’s other pitchers — Cagle, Porter, Rhett Acker, Les Wesberry and Jordan Boone — will have to bridge the gap, either in relief or with a spot start. All four have been effective at times, but their seasons have also been marked by inconsistency.

Cagle, who turned in a solid effort in a loss to the Outlaws in June, has good stuff but has had problems with control throughout his Post 72 career; Acker has a wicked — but unpredictable — knuckleball that was good enough to carry him to a five-inning no-hitter in June; Porter — 2-0 since returning from his injury — has been dominant at times but has also been hit hard in a couple of his appearances; Boone is the team’s only lefty and has been a nice change of pace out of the bullpen, but he also had some nightmare innings in June; and Wesberry (the Braves’ starting right fielder) has shown enough promise in his few appearances on the mound this summer that Graham probably won’t hesitate to use him if, like last year, his pitching wears thin by Sunday.

In a year where the Outlaws are the favorite — although not an overwhelming one — to repeat as champions, Graham figures to play his aces early this week in hopes of putting his team ahead of the field. That could make the rest of the Post 72 pitching staff this season’s state tournament wild card and leave Graham as the dealer in a high-stakes final hand this weekend.

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